Opportunities for PhDs Outside Academia

Have you wondered what you can accomplish as a PhD outside of academia? What about the benefits and opportunities you will have from earning a doctorate in your respective field? Although academia is central to discovering and disseminating information, it is not the only area of work one can pursue after receiving a doctoral degree. For example, working as a freelance consultant, a civil servant, as well as for a nonprofit or a think-tank are all career possibilities after completing a PhD program. 

Although the process of getting a doctorate degree is quite strictly academic, the work after does not have to be. It is important to assess all of one’s career paths while or after pursuing a doctoral degree, as well as to consider all the benefits that come with having a PhD including positive financial outcomes, extensive writing and research experience, hiring advantages, and a myriad of possibilities for original digital content. 

This post was written by Isabel Inoa, BA (freelance writer) and Dr. Stephanie A. Bosco-Ruggiero (PhD in Social Work) on behalf of Dr. Dave Maslach for the R3ciprocity project (check out the YouTube Channel or the writing feedback software). R3ciprocity helps students, faculty, and researchers by providing an authentic look into PhD and academic life and how to be a successful researcher. For over four years the project has been offering advice, community, and encouragement to students and researchers around the world.

What job opportunities are there for PhD’s outside academia?

As a PhD, one can maximize their chances of entering a wide array of positions and workplaces. To give a few examples, completing a PhD program in the social sciences can give you access to positions in writing and editing, consulting, research, and administration. Earning a doctoral degree in sociology can lead to jobs in public health, business management, and social work. In addition, upon completion of a PhD program in political science, one can become a pollster, commentator, writer, or researcher, or policy analyst.  You might even move abroad or spend some time abroad to find more opportunities in your field. Read this blog post by one of our writers about studying and doing research outside the U.S. 

What kind of career flexibility comes with having a PhD?

While there are numerous job opportunities outside academia, there also is a great deal of flexibility in work environment and scheduling that comes with having a doctoral level of education. For example, a clinical psychologist with a doctorate degree may choose to work privately, which would entail setting up their own clients and weekly hours to their liking. 

On a broader scale, a PhD can do a wide variety of freelance work, where they can monetize their many skills with different clients and/or companies. PhDs who choose to freelance can do highly variable work which they can align with their different interests. They can find job opportunities through freelance sites, academic networks, professional associations, and professional contacts. They can set their own rates and hire staff if needed. Where freelance work is possible, people of color and women will have more agency over their boundaries and policies day to day, and may focus on projects that have a greater impact on marginalized people in society.

Here is some advice from Dave about going into consulting after earning a PhD: 

Having a PhD also gives people broader access to a variety of fields and types of work. While in a program, students have time to plan their careers while gaining invaluable skills and knowledge in their fields. Multidisciplinary work is more possible when one has a research degree. Having a wide variety of experiences before eventual retirement can sustain one’s interest in and passion for a particular field or array of disciplines.  Having a PhD can provide an outlet for stimulating work and help people actualize a healthy relationship with work. 

PhDs also tend to have very long careers. Who says we have to retire like people in other fields do? We can cut back on our work but that intellectual drive will always be there, so we can work well into later life. PhDs are after all known as the wise, silver haired sages who never give up on the pursuit of knowledge. PhDs could even enter academia later in their careers after they have contributed to their respective field as a practitioner, manager, or professional.

How can having a PhD help me financially? 

Earning a PhD can serve as a positive catalyst for a strong financial future. In fact, the average salary of someone with a PhD is higher than those who earn a bachelor’s or professional degree. Of course earnings vary by discipline and region, but it is comforting to know that PhDs have an average unemployment rate of 1.1%. Click here to learn more about income data based on education level. However, don’t forget about the opportunity cost of doing the doctorate (the lost wages and salaries for pursuing a degree for 4-8 years). Often, the final benefit may not be better than the cost, compared to getting say a MBA. Some professional Master’s degrees (MBA, nursing, nurse practitioner, etc.) have much better financial returns than a doctorate.

Living in a fast-paced society can be quite stressful, as productivity is generally valued more than mental health and overall well-being. Completing a PhD program may allow someone the flexibility they need to establish a balance between self-care and work-life. Coupled with the increased likelihood of financial security, obtaining a doctoral degree may also contribute to a healthier relationship with productivity and wealth. 

(Dave’s Thoughts: Maybe – if you choose to go to academia, you will likely work more than you would in industry. You will also have considerably increased stresses of publishing. The academic market is far more competitive than most people realize.)

How can having a PhD impact those who are underrepresented in their field, in academia, and in research? 

As doctoral programs are designed to help people hone their skills in writing and research, they provide unique academic experiences which help graduates in the long run. Many PhD programs last between four and six years, and since they are specific to one’s academic interests, earning a doctoral degree can only strengthen one’s confidence in their knowledge, which eventually becomes expertise. 

For people that struggle with imposter syndrome in academic and professional settings, especially those with marginalized identities, a PhD program can provide an avenue for alternate career choices, greater confidence, and greater opportunities. This is against the backdrop of continued exclusion and underrepresented identities in higher education. Having more underrepresented identities in higher education and PhD programs will encourage other underrepresented individuals going through the same process. In terms of role models for underrepresented groups, it is vital that people see people similar to them succeeding at something they themselves would also like to do. 

Having more women and people of color in PhD programs and holding PhDs can broaden the scope of research topics and approaches in various academic fields. For example, there could be research topics and/or new ideas a particular field has yet to be exposed to because of the underrepresentation of certain groups. Since PhD programs are so heavily geared toward exploring new and engaging research topics, moving toward a vision of more demographically equitable programs will ensure more holistic research practice, as well as more research that highlights the scholarship of those who have been historically excluded from higher education. 

Watch this video as Dave talks about why we need more folks from underrepresented groups as PhDs.

Does having a PhD help you get promoted outside academia?

Those who have earned a PhD are highly sought after in today’s job market. Not only does their extensive experience in research and writing make them incredible problem-solvers, but they also learn to be quite resilient in the process of conducting their own research. After all, they have repeatedly learned from trial and error.  Click here to read more about the career advantages of having a PhD

What about networking and social media? Is that important for PhDs? 

Since PhD programs are designed to help people become experts in their respective fields, after obtaining a doctoral degree it is natural to want to share one’s immense knowledge with other people. This could mean a variety of things, especially considering how popular social media is today. Those who have earned a doctoral degree may decide to publish a book on the extensive research they have done, while also writing about their own experience working towards their degree and giving advice to those going into higher education programs. PhDs often write blogs or create profiles on networking sites for academics and researchers like LinkedIn, academia.com, and Researchgate. 

YouTube, Tiktok, and Instagram are among many online platforms which allow people to monetize their talents and knowledge (if they obtain a considerable number of subscribers/followers). So, PhDs can utilize their research and experience to teach others and may be able to get paid for it. Not only that, but a successful social media page is yet another way in which people can organize their own weekly schedule from the comfort of their own homes, generally. 

Podcasts are also becoming increasingly popular and provide another digital avenue for making connections with other scholars, creating an online community, and sharing engaging information with others that is not purely restricted to an academic tone or topic. PhDs may also choose to reach out to creators to be featured on podcasts if they cannot or prefer not to invest the time it takes to produce content on their own. 

Patreon websites or membership platforms where creators can get compensated for any given service can be used by PhDs to share advice with a wide range of clients. For example, with a doctoral degree in clinical psychology, one could provide pamphlets or videos on bettering mental health, becoming a more effective communicator, healing familial relationships, etc. on their Patreon. People with Patreon websites also usually manage a YouTube channel or another social media platform where people consume digital content for free, so that they can advertise the other services they offer. If you are into using other apps and platforms to further your career, check out this blog post on blog.reciprocity.com about essential software and tools for academics. 

Dave’s Thoughts: Warning. Warning. I am going to have to politely disagree with the idea that academics are encouraged to blog, be on social media, etc. In some fields this is moderately acceptable (eg., economics), however, in most fields, social media is considered a taboo in academia. The belief is that you should be doing research, and not writing social media posts.

So, what I would suggest is that you focus on research completely, and be prepared to be a bit of an outsider to traditional academic/PhD life if you are going to do anything that is related to social media. This is a very risky endeavor, and you have to be careful with it. It will take a lot of courage, and know there are career risks involved. Indeed, most academics will flat out tell you not to do this pre-tenure.

How do I network with other PhDs outside academia?  

Besides creating communities online, there are also a variety of collectives for people who have earned their doctoral degrees. Whether they are groups of people that share a degree in the same field or are people that come from a wide array of academic backgrounds, there are a myriad of places and organizations to enhance one’s experience after earning a doctoral degree. Some affinity spaces and collectives are for underrepresented researchers. Here, not only can underrepresented individuals make new connections, but they may also gain a support system of like-minded people in their field. Some examples of in-person networking organizations for those that have earned or are in the process of earning their doctoral degree include: The PhD Project, The Black Doctoral Network, and the Latina PhD Student Collective

The bottom line

Earning a PhD does not mean you have to go into academia. Having a doctoral degree can open new doors for those who enjoy research and writing. It can earn you promotions outside academia and allow you to become a more independent professional. There are many reasons to consider getting a PhD, and greater career flexibility and more opportunity are just two of the best reasons to start earning your PhD today. As you consider different programs, then enter a program, you may feel a bit out of your league at first. Here are some wise words from Dave about how being a PhD student and earning a PhD may make you feel. 

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